There is absolutely no denying that our country continues to face a deep divide, partly because “history” has come under attack, and because the context is lost when items and artifacts are shared on social media. As a reporter who regularly covers social media, I understand that the lens through which we share images, thoughts, and even ideas can be skewered to fit our audience, and the “context” of some historical items can be equally skewered or even warped.
Take the swastika, for instance. There is no denying that this symbol, which predated the Nazi Party by thousands of years and was an icon of good luck, has become one of pure hatred and evil. We cannot look at the symbol and not see the millions of dead, the bloodshed, and turmoil it caused. But when presented as a mere photo shared on Twitter, the context is lost.
This was most notable last month when at the National Gun Day Show in Louisville, Ky., several Nazi items were seen for sale. The truth is that “militaria” (military collectibles or memorabilia) have long been staple items at such events, but to the reporters covering the event, especially following a racially motivated shooting in Louisville, this was an unexpected shock.
Should We Pretend History Never Happened?
It is truly easy to see how people would be offended by these items being sold, but the context was lost here. For one, many readers who commented assumed the athletic shirt in question was a newly made item akin to a work out-shirt for white supremacists and racists. But it was in fact a vintage athletic shirt from the Third Reich made before the Second World War, and sold as a valuable collectible. The same was true of the other items bearing the swastika — these were all historic memorabilia.
There is of course a valid debate to be had on whether such items, even of an historic nature, should be bought or sold, or should only reside in museums where the context can be given. But as a collector of military headdress for much of my life, I do understand the context as much as a museum. As I am working on my latest book, “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” this issue is very fresh in mind. I’ve spent the last year researching various topics, from the materials used to time period.
I do own a few military helmets that have a swastika, as it was commonly used with most German World War II helmets, but these hold no special place in my heart, apart from the fact that they were given to me by my great uncle, a World War II veteran who brought these home from Europe, and by another great uncle I never met, as he was killed by the Germans in the closing weeks of the war.
Not having the German helmets in my collection of World War II headgear would be like pretending the Nazis never existed. I do understand the sensitivities around these items. I know clearly that Nazi Germany was our enemy in the war that my great uncles along with so many other young American men fought, and for that reason among so many others, I can only see them as our villains and not heroes in any sense of the word.
Why Is One Thing Okay But the Other Not?
This is why, as I see the outrage over the sale of an historic item, I question why it considered acceptable to play as Nazi Germany in video games such as “Battlefield V.” I realize someone has to be the “bad guy,” and this is certainly true in multiplayer video games. One friend who questioned my ownership of a historic piece happily played those games against me, and when pressed on the issue he told me, “This is just a game. That’s different from embracing the items of the regime.”
But is it? As a collector I don’t have any appreciation or even fascination with the Third Reich. I see it as the enemy and its items as “war trophies,” but today’s games are now showing something that could be seen as bordering on appreciation.
DICE/EA, which is developing and publishing “Battlefield V,” will reportedly release content for the game that features a single-player war story where the player takes the role of a German tank commander. Dubbed “The Last Tiger,” the story will center on a Tiger tank crew at the end of the war, and it focuses on this crew questioning the ideology of Nazi Germany.
The development team has said in interviews that this isn’t a hero story, and has made it clear the characters are not Nazis, just German soldiers. Perhaps that is meant to be a poignant statement on how “normal” people could be driven to do bad things and follow a vile regime, but this frankly feels like a cop-out. For one, this just sounds too much like a statement on the current divide in America, but it still has a single-player “adventure” where the player is taking the role of the enemy.
Playing the Bad Guy Is One Thing, Celebrating It Another
This playing the bad guy thing is common in video games. It’s arguably all too common, whether it is criminals in “Grand Theft Auto” or a western outlaw in “Red Dead Redemption.” It could be argued this goes back to playing “cops and robbers” as children, as someone needs to be the bad guy. But we’ve come to celebrate and reward playing the bad guy. The gaming press rarely if ever questions the context of these games, just as the context of playing as the Germans in “Battlefield V” or the recent “Call of Duty” is never questioned.
It should also be noted that those two war game franchises don’t include swastikas on flags or vehicles, perhaps as a way to reduce the connection to the Nazis. Yet visually the games have gotten far more realistic, so it is hard for me not to appreciate such detailed uniforms and equipment.
When playing “Battlefield V” for an upcoming review, I was taken aback, because this game was visually impressive. But then I saw those moments where my teammates fired at Allied soldiers and I was immediately reminded again of Jon Koski, my great uncle who was killed in March 1945. It was men in these uniforms that shot him, and while millions died on all sides, that context is likely lost on all too many gamers.
Because we are shunning real history — where collectors are questioned for owning these pieces that have historic significance and social media obliterates the context when these items are presented — this game is veering closer to a fiction. As a result, by the time “Battlefield 10” is released, World War II might become a fiction akin to Star Wars to most gamers.
None of this is to say that games shouldn’t focus on World War II or other conflicts. As a military history enthusiast, I see that this helps connect those who play these games with real history. It is just a sad state of affairs in my mind that owning a real helmet from an actual war is suddenly controversial, while donning one in a video game is considered fully acceptable, even though both are from the men whom my great uncles and the others of our Greatest Generation fought so hard against.